The popularity of “science diplomacy” has waxed and waned, but the U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz’s role in promoting the Iran deal surely heralds its return. In practice, science diplomacy can mean any number of things: Scientists might serve as technical advisors to a government agency with international responsibility, or they might participate directly in negotiations. But because scientists routinely cross international borders to attend conferences and to work with foreign colleagues, science diplomacy also has a more informal mode, something more akin to “building fellow feeling.” Think of American astronauts exchanging “handshakes in space” with their Soviet counterparts after docking their Apollo and Soyuz capsules in July 1975.
Since 1950, when a report by the physicist Lloyd Berkner urged the State Department to incorporate science into its regular operations, the concept of science diplomacy has mixed an optimism associated with the most idealized visions of scientific behavior with raw cynicism about scientists’ access to people and information. At the moment, optimism is ascendant, thanks in no small part to the role of scientists in the nuclear negotiations.
This spring, several reports noted the odd, and yet somehow inevitable, coupling of Secretary Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. The two men both spent time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s: Moniz as member of the physics faculty, Salehi as a graduate student in nuclear engineering. Although their paths didn’t cross in Cambridge, they shared the language of science and mutual acquaintances. By late March of this year, Moniz and Salehi were on a first-name basis, “disappearing for hours at a time,” according to The New York Times, to discuss centrifuges and plutonium production.
Richard Stone, the international editor for Science magazine, credits the scientists’ participation with “getting the negotiations back on track.” Stone has been covering science in Iran since 2005, and has recently interviewed Ali Salehi.
In the interview, Salehi makes bold claims not only for the importance of technical expertise at the negotiating table, but also for being able to communicate with Moniz, scientist-to-scientist. As he told Stone, “We tried to be logical and fair. We understood each other.” Their national commitments “did not prevent either of us from being rational.” (While the Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment for this article, a spokesman confirmed the broad outlines of Salehi’s account of events for Science.)
While acknowledging that both parties represented their own national interests, Stone says he finds the general sentiment credible. “Thanks to their scientific track records and their personalities, they respected each other and could ultimately reach compromises on a number of sensitive technical issues—compromises that had eluded the political negotiators.”